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Monday, January 18, 2010

Aquaman Shrine Interview with James Kakalios - 2010

Back in November, I wrote a post about my involvement with the Aquaman-related chapter of author James Kakalios' fun and informative book The Physics of Superheroes (Spectacular Second Edition).

I was really thrilled to have helped James out, and even more thrilled when he was gracious enough to credit me (and the Shrine!) in the book. Not too long after the it came out, I asked the good professor if he wouldn't mind doing an interview with me for the Shrine to talk about the book in general, and the physics of Aquaman specifically:

The Aquaman Shrine: How early on did you get interested in science?

James Kakalios: I enjoyed science even as a kid in grade school. I was an avid comic book reader, and I particularly identified with the smarter characters--Reed Richards, Brainiac 5, Hank McCoy of the X-Men. I enjoyed reading brain teaser books, Encyclopedia Brown stories and young adult science books.

By the time I entered high school I had drifted away from both science and superheroes. The former was due to lack of confidence in my abilities, which in hindsight was the result of normal teenage insecurities. The latter was due to my discovering girls (a discovery for which I am not accorded sufficient credit in the scientific literature--but I digress!). Toward the end of my time in high school, I was thinking I would be a pre-law major in college.

A math teacher, noting that I had an aptitude for the subject, suggested that I look into patent law. The more I investigated this area, realizing that I would have to take a lot of science and engineering classes as an undergraduate, the more interesting the technical classes seemed. So by the time I entered college, I was an engineering major, who would be recruited (seduced?) into physics by my sophomore year.

TAS: Were there comics that were more interesting for you because of their science angle?

JK: In a sense, yes. I really liked those comics that featured creative problem solving. I loved the Flash, who, perhaps due to his training as a police scientist, was always using novel, scientifically accurate applications of super-speed to get out the Rogue's various death traps.

I also loved the Fantastic Four, the Justice League of America, and the Legion of Superheroes. The more characters with varying superpowers, the more ingenious the solution to the threat posed by the monthly supervillain.
I enjoyed the puzzle solving aspect of these stories (not unlike Encyclopedia Brown adventures, which played fair with the reader). They also emphasized the importance of knowing the laws of nature.
Often Barry Allen would employ some arcane fact or scientific principle (a Flash Fact!) when defeating Captain Cold (not a real captain, by the way) or Gorilla Grodd. And, perhaps most importantly for a budding, proto-scientist, they provided the reader with essential fashion tips! (So, if I'm ever struck by lightning, while being bitten by a wild animal and wallowing in radioactive waste--I'll be ready!).

TAS: Were there ever any comics series you read that got the science so wrong that you couldn't put up with it anymore, or could you always invoke the "miracle exception"?

JK: Not so much examples of bogus science that turned me off--rather I remember those cases of correct science that turned me on! I have vivid memories of reading The Flash #167, the dreaded Mopee issue (where it was revealed that Barry Allen gained his super-speed powers through the intervention of a "tenth dimensional elf-novice order") when the Scarlet Speedster lost his ability to ignore air drag. That is, he could still run at super-speed, but if he went too fast he would burst into flame, not unlike a meteor or space capsule when it enters our atmosphere. I remember being struck that I had never considered this real world complication associated with super-speed. These examples, of getting it right, stuck with me more than the errors.

TAS: How familiar were you with Aquaman before you started writing the Physics books? Your chapter on him argues against his B-list status like a longtime fan, well-versed in defending their hero!
JK: Most of my interactions with the Aquatic Ace came through reading Justice League of America stories. I always thought that more could be done with him, and Gardner Fox seemed sometimes to strain to include Aquaman in the adventure. Given that many of their stories took place in space, it's easy to see why it would be hard to include him. But he was a member of the team, and if he hung around with the Flash and Green Lantern, he was ok in my book!

TAS: Many people in comics have supposed that Aquaman's body, since it can survive at the very bottom of the ocean and is invulnerable to the immense pressure found there, is therefore tough enough to be bullet-proof. Can you settle this once and for all?
JK: When Aquaman deflects a shell fired from a German U-Boat in his very first appearance in More Fun Comics #73, we can estimate that his arm is experiencing a pressure of nearly five tons per square inch. A mile beneath the ocean's surface, the pressure is roughly 2600 pounds per square inch.

Given that the Aquatic Ace can survive even deeper on the ocean floor, it thus is indeed plausible that he could survive the howitzer shell. However a bullet has a much smaller cross-sectional area than a cannon shell, and thus would exert a much greater pressure when deflected. A bullet may therefore harm him, while a larger projectile would not. Nevertheless, I for one would not want to test this idea by shooting a pistol at Aquaman--I would never take the chance that it would just make him mad!

TAS: Its always been said Aquaman communicates with fish--but he also talks to whales, which are mammals. Wouldn't this mean Aquaman can communicate telepathically with any mammal on the planet?

JK: Hmmmm. Never thought about the distinction between aquatic mammals and fish, vis a vis Aquaman's telepathy. I know that fish possess a specific organ that generate weak electromagnetic fields, that helps them navigate in murky waters, while some, such as sharks and skates, have very sensitive electroreceptors that can detect minute voltages.

But mammal or fish, brains send signals involving ionic currents that generate very weak electromagnetic fields. If Aquaman can communicate with fish, then, aided by the very high electrical conductance of salt water, he should also be able to "talk" to any brain in his liquid domain. His telepathy with humans should be enhanced when they are underwater--something I'm sure you can cite examples of!
TAS: There are examples of Aquaman being able to talk to people when he's underwater, and frequently those moments were presented as a given--as in, of course he can do this.

Are many of the students who have taken your class comic book fans? Do you have to spend much class time explaining who these characters are (outside of, say, Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man maybe) and what they can do before you can get to the physics part of it?

sgJK: Early on, before the class became well known through out the University, about a third of the class were not comic book fans. Rather they were liberal arts majors who enjoyed their high school physics class, and wanted to take a low-pressure college physics class.

Thus I did indeed have to explain the characters and their powers (this person was exposed to lethal amounts of radiation and thus became...super-strong). This motivated me, when writing the book, to take the time to explain the heroes and villains, and explain what they could do. As stated on the back cover of the paperback edition--reading this book is equivalent to earning an M.S. degree--that stands for Master of Superheroes!

TAS: There's been an onslaught of superhero movies in the last decade, making characters like IronMan, Hellboy, and the X-Men (almost) household names. Has this had any effect on your class?

JK: As my class is open to any student in the University, the students bring a wide range of math and science backgrounds and preparation. Consequently, rather than assign exams in the traditional sense, they pick a favorite character or scene and analyze it from a scientific perspective. That way they can be as quantitative or qualitative as their background allows.

Every fall, the topics selected by the students inevitably concern the past summer's superhero blockbusters. Consequently we have studied the compressive strength of Superman's eyeballs (able to withstand a bullet fired at point blank range), Magneto flipping semi-trucks or lifting the Golden Gate Bridge, and Iron Man jetting from a cave in the Mark I armor. So yes, the onslaught of superhero movies (fortunately none have so far involved Onslaught) have indeed had an effect on my class!

TAS: Do you have more superhero test cases you're dying to get to for a possible third edition of Physics of Superheroes?

JK: After the first edition, I would have answered this question with: No. But then within a few years a whole collection of new examples came up, and I had plenty to fresh material. So, having just finished the second edition, I would say, again, No--but who's to say in another few years time.

Right now new content is going into another book I'm writing--The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics (who says this isn't the Marvel Age of Shameless Plugs?)--that explains this field of physics, relating it to science fiction pulps and comic books from the 1930's through the 1960's (with a little bit of Watchmen thrown in).

I really enjoyed talking to Jim (oh, excuse me--Professor Kakalios) about his book, his love of superheroes, and the scientific basis (if any) of Aquaman's powers. Millions of comic fans have had arguments over their favorite heroes' abilities, but how many chances do you get to ask an actual physics professor if you're right?

The Physics of Superheroes Second Edition is heartily endorsed for any Aquafan with even a passing interest in science! Thanks Jim!


Richard said...

Terrific stuff. I feel obliged to add here that James' essay in Teenagers from the Future is one of the funnest things in that book…and that's saying a lot!

Unknown said...

Another great interview, Rob, and thank you, James, for your time. I got the book as a gift this past holiday and love it - entertaining and educational.

IADW said...

That was a really awesome and interesting article guys!

We need this kind of paper here - unless it already is here - in which case I had the worst guidance councillor in the world!

Randy said...

I have his first book, having received it as a Christmas/Chanukah present a couple years ago. I enjoyed it immensely and now might consider buying the second one.

Especially if Aquaman is involved in it.

Wings1295 said...

Great interview! He sounds like a fun guy, as well as being incredibly smart! Cool stuff.

Luis said...

At last my theory confirmed!! The one that states that Aquaman does not just "talk to fish" (a phrase that has been used to mock the Sea King, as in "Aquaman? Oh, he talks to fish."). Rather Aquaman uses water as a medium to enhance his telepathic powers to communicate with ANYONE AND ANYTHING in the water, be if fish, mammals or people. Great interview, by the way.

Also, as a curious thing, the word verification box used to post messages had the word "undowtor" which sounds just like "underwater", just a coincidince?

Steve said...

Another great interview, rob! Thanks for all you do with the site!

Andy Luckett said...

Once again, Rob, great job! I would love to be able to take Dr. Kakalios' class, but barring that, I will definitely read his books!

He seems like my kind of professor: someone who finds a way to make the learning experience fun and engaging for students and himself.